February 12, 2019

The answer to a very old question is: 9.

In the comments to the previous post — "Things to do with cigarettes," which looked at some fabulous vintage ads for a long forgotten cigarette brand, Murad — Laslo Spatula was inspired to rewrite some of the sentences that were part of my old "Gatsby" project (where I'd take a sentence from "The Great Gatsby" and we'd talk about it out of context).

So Laslo was posting things like:
"A tray of cocktails floated at us through the twilight, and we sat down at a table with the two girls in yellow and three men, each one smoking a Murad."
Here's the old post from "Gatsby" project, where you see the original sentence from the novel was: "A tray of cocktails floated at us through the twilight, and we sat down at a table with the two girls in yellow and three men, each one introduced to us as Mr. Mumble."

The first commenter on that post asks "How many times does the word 'yellow' come up in a search of 'The Great Gatsby'?"

Within the half hour, I give him my answer: 24. And that makes me want to count the rest of the colors. Is yellow the dominant "Gatsby" color? What's most likely to beat it? The other primary colors. Using the search function in Kindle, I found 22 appearances of "blue," but...
Red can't be counted via Kindle, which includes the letters "red" within other words, like "declared," "considered," and "incredulously."
I proceeded to the rest of the colors:
Purple: 0
Orange: 4
Brown: 7
Black: only 13 (very surprising)
White: 50 (the book is racist!)
Green: 19
Pink: 6
Lavender: 6
Seeing that old post today, I wondered if the Kindle software had changed since then (January 2013). And yes, it had! I got my answer. 9!

Only 9 for "red." Surprisingly low considering 24 for "yellow" and 22 for blue. Was F. Scott Fitzgerald aversive to red for some reason? There are 19 "red"s in "The Last Tycoon" and 25 in "Tender Is the Night," so the avoidance of red seems to be "Gatsby" specific.

There are only 9, so I will quote them all for you, and let's think about how "red" was used and why it was used sparingly:

1. "I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Mæcenas knew."

2. "Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay."

3. "Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard."

4. "The sister, Catherine, was a slender, worldly girl of about thirty, with a solid, sticky bob of red hair, and a complexion powdered milky white."

5. "One of the girls in yellow was playing the piano, and beside her stood a tall, red-haired young lady from a famous chorus, engaged in song."

6. "We passed Port Roosevelt, where there was a glimpse of red-belted ocean-going ships, and sped along a cobbled slum lined with the dark, undeserted saloons of the faded-gilt nineteen-hundreds."

7. "I had on a new plaid skirt also that blew a little in the wind, and whenever this happened the red, white, and blue banners in front of all the houses stretched out stiff and said tut-tut-tut-tut, in a disapproving way."

8. "She asked me if I was going to the Red Cross and make bandages."

9. "There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other. With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of transit, a thin red circle in the water."

We see red in various objects in ##1 (money), 2 (a mansion), 3 (gas pumps), 6 (ships), 7 (the American flag) and twice — ##4 and 5 — in women's hair. #8, as part of a proper name, might deserve little attention, but it is about blood and points to #9, the really important one, which really is blood, though the word "blood" doesn't appear.

Spoiler alert... it's Gatsby's blood. He's shot dead in the swimming pool. The "mattress" is the flotation device he's lying on, and we learn of his death in that 9th appearance of "red" — "a thin red circle in the water." It's just color and geometry. You figure out that it's blood.

That distancing contrasts with the one appearance of the word "blood" in "The Great Gatsby":
The other car, the one going toward New York, came to rest a hundred yards beyond, and its driver hurried back to where Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust. 
No use of the tightly hoarded word "red" is expended on Myrtle. Her blood is "dark blood" — as it mixes not with water but with dust.

Such are the colors of "Gatsby," and a long-unfinished count is completed. The answer is: 9.

I imagine the first commenter cranking me up again and asking "How many times does the word 'nine' come up in a search of 'The Great Gatsby'?"

The answer is 6, and every single one is the time of day.


Earnest Prole said...

I loved your Gatsby project.

Ann Althouse said...

"I loved your Gatsby project."

Thanks! I did too.

Of course, we didn't get to all the sentences, so there's room for more.

madAsHell said...

Black isn't a color.

gilbar said...

Question for You Professor Althouse?

Is it Fair to count Red hair as the Color Red?
Do you, as a law Professor; think of Red hair as Red?
Or do you think that we wouldn't call that color Red anywhere other than hair?

ps. Okay, I'm Not asking you this as a Law Professor; but as a carrot top

Bill, Republic of Texas said...

I thought the answer was:


Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

"At the Yellow Rat Cafe...

...you can re-Kindle your love of the Classics

William said...

We associate Red with The Great Gatsby because of Robert Redford.......I think Redford would have been better cast as Buchanan. Redford has the meat eating jaws and the karma and specific gravity to keep Daisy in orbit. Gatsby should be a little outre, more like a comet than a star. He causes Daisy to wobble a bit in her orbit but doesn't have sufficient presence to disrupt the firmament. Maybe someone like DeNiro would have made a more lkely Gatsby. Michelle Dockery would play well as Daisy.

Henry said...

Of course, we didn't get to all the sentences...

That's what Fitzgerald's editor said.

Bay Area Guy said...

"The answer to a very old question is: 9."

How many minutes did it take for Kamala Harris to blow Willie Brown after first meeting him?

Bob said...

"Yellow" appears 21 times in Moby Dick.

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

ok let's get this over with. "The Great Ratsby"

narciso said...

that's an intriguing idea no redford didn't match my image of gatsby, he had to be more rough hewn, as much as deniro. I don't know, decaprio doesn't really fit it either, than again neither did Waterston as carroway, neither did tobey maguire,

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

how many times does the color purple come up in Alice Walker's novel?

tim in vermont said...

The car that figures heavily in the plot was yellow. Not sure if Tom Buchanan brought up the "yellow peril."

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

I was just curious(yellow)

Michael E. Lopez said...

I am genuinely surprised that "green" isn't more prominent, what with the light and all.

Lawrence Person said...

But how many times does "gold" appear?

Ralph L said...

I had on a new plaid skirt also that blew a little in the wind,

I knew there was something funny about Nick Carraway.

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

I knew there was something funny about Nick Carraway.

something seedy about Carraway

tim in vermont said...

Huckleberry Finn would be a great one for sentences, but problematic and not worth it. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, obviously Moby Dick. Infinite Jest, which I don't recommend to non masochistic readers.

bagoh20 said...

I thought the answer '9' was referring to the post about who's is bigger?

Mattman26 said...

Can we do a Bonfire project? Can we mom, can we?

Ann Althouse said...


I was going to respond to the first commenter eith that idea so the answer is almost surely yes.

I’m almost done with my adventures in eye surgery and I will put something together!

Ann Althouse said...


It was just a count of the word. If I wanted to disqualify some instances to bolster my theory... it wouldn’t work because my theory is that FSG avoided using the word.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

I thought the answer was:


That's the answer to an even older question!

Laslo Spatula said...

"The answer to a very old question is: 9."

This put the 'refrain' of the White Album's "Revolution #9" in my head, damn it.

Which then made me wonder (akin to Althouse's question): how many times is "nine' said in" Revolution #9?"

No easy answers provided by Google, but an obsessive page on the song goes through it moment by moment, teasing out samples, dialogue, effects, instruments etc.

Using its 'lyric sheet' it seems the answer is 55.

I feel better now.

I am Laslo.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

#9: The Larch.

wildswan said...

I wonder if there is a color tonality to books from certain years - because maybe there was a fashion tonality in that year. For instance, in Egg Harbor they would have worn Madras shorts in the early Sixties. Then would Fitzgerald have woven colors together? And - asking the important questions - could a hero wear shorts?

Ralph L said...

something seedy about Carraway

I get it, but it was a NEW plaid skirt.

Was it an accident that Myrtle and Daisy are flowers?

Ralph L said...

two girls in yellow
Wouldn't they be upset to be wearing the same color? Fitzgerald's fashion sense seems to sexist.

PM said...

9 x any number or numbers eventually add up to 9.

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Churchy LaFemme: said...

Not 0

Guildofcannonballs said...

Yeah and I got yur Feste right here.

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

re yellow predominance-
maybe Fitzgerald, like Van Gogh, had a foxtail digitalis thing going on.

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

absinthe, a popular liqueur containing thujone. Excessive consumption of this liqueur may cause the consumer to see all objects with a yellow hue.
another theory, possibly debunked

Ingachuck'stoothlessARM said...

...and you would hope that the All Seeing Eye of the illuminati would
be able to do a little proofreading. Sad.

chickelit said...

@ICARM: Another part of absinthe is anise-derived anethol — from the Latin anethum (anise) + oleum (oil).

Anethole is also a trans-gendered olefin.

Guildofcannonballs said...

I got your Grackle right here.

Chanie said...

I've never bought into the idea that these colors mattered as much as people wanted them to. Sometimes a book is just red and gold and a ship has a red stripe. It's not deep. It's just a color.

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He died young.

Consider, being ripped apart for straight profit, can't.

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tim in vermont said...

Chanie said...
I've never bought into the idea that these colors mattered as much as people wanted them to. Sometimes a book is just red and gold and a ship has a red stripe. It's not deep. It's just a color.

If you want to understand fiction the way the author intended it to be understood, you have to view it the way a paranoid schizophrenic views the real world.

“And to make matters worse, this morning I saw a ship in the harbor with a, get this, a RED STRIPE!"

PM said...

Unknown said..."Not 0."

Correct, as usual.